Joan Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean: Why Feminist Utopians Might Like Science Fiction

Diane Koester

In typical utopian fiction characters from the author's "real" society get into another society and .link the two realms to display the utopia. There has been question about whether SF societies not placeable on anything like earth are really utopias, really suggestions for the "real world." 1 In this paper I shall treat a SF novel that depicts not only an imaginary eutopia but also an imaginary dystopia with earth-like aspects, Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986). 2 Slonczewski joins the ranks of the many feminists who have written SF and fantasy utopian fiction in the past two decades, including authors using two or more invented worlds. 3 I shall argue that this structure, allowed by the conventions of SF, offers particular advantages for presenting a vision of an ideal and for critiquing the real, because of (not despite) the "unreality" of both worlds presented. In conclusion I shall explore other reasons that Slonczewski and other feminists, as feminists, might find SF a congenial genre for utopian fiction.

I am singling out A Door into Ocean because it is lesser-known than other recent feminist utopias, perhaps because it is often pigeonholed as a Quaker novel. To be sure, non-violence and consensus-building are major themes, indeed very worthy ones for exploration in utopian fiction. But l shall present A Door into Ocean primarily as a skillfully written literary construct. This focus may seem strange for an analysis of utopian fiction, In which plot, characters, and literary devices are mere vehicles for presenting political, social, ethical, psychological and other structures. I intend to show the literary qualities of this SF utopia that make it effective as a utopia.

A Door into Ocean presents two contrasting worlds, Valedon, which displays recognizable elements of our dystopian earth and its ocean-covered moon, Shora, an all-female eutopia. At the beginning of the novel two Sharers, as people of Shora call themselves, Merwen and Usha, come to Valedon to judge whether or not Valans are human, that is, whether Sharers have to deal with Valan traders, who are exploiting them and the Shoran environment, as humans, to be shared with rather than fought or excluded. Unlike many Sharers, who wish to "close the door" to Valans, Merwen believes that Valans are human on the basis of psychological evidence. Usha, a "lifeshaper" or scientist/doctor, on Shora, argues for Valan humanity because, although Sharer anatomy no longer admits coitus with males, Sharers and Valans are genetically compatible.

The Sharers have some experience already with a Valan woman, named Lady Berenice of Hyalite on Valedon and Nisi on Shora. When her family established the moon trade on Shora, Nisi spent much of her childhood there, and she returns frequently in her adulthood. On Valedon her parents have engineered her engagement to a politically important military man, whom she does love. Shora seems more attractive to her, but she cannot break completely with her Valan existence.

The Valans in the small provincial seaport Merwen and Usha visit greet them with fear. They look strange -- webbed hands and feet, lack of hair and clothing, amethyst color -- and they are indifferent to Valan customs and laws. Yet Valans tolerate them because they maintain autonomy through inner strength and because they can dispense advice and good medicines. They especially interest a young Valan male, Spinel, who has not learned a proper trade. With "nothing to lose," he agrees to return to Shora with them. The novel details his progressive acclimatization to Shora and Sharer thinking, and in the end, he, a "Valan malefreak," remains on Shora, a symbol of a slender hope that these two cultures are after all human and bridgeable.

While Spinel is experiencing utopia, Shora, Valedon invades, to counter increasing Sharer reluctance to tolerate the way that Valans are damaging their environment. Also, the Envoy from the Patriarch of the Valan god-planet Torr, on his regular ten-year visit, orders Valedon to discover if Sharer lifeshaping sciences are "forbidden" (a threat to existing power structures) and to subjugate Shora to obedience to Patriarchal law without destroying Shora or its inhabitants. Nisi's fiance Realgar is commissioned with this task.

The non-violent Sharers resist the Valan military presence with pesky biological containments to Valan ecological damage and with non-violent civil disobedience. Valans respond with military tactics, torture, and brainwashing. Since Sharers don't act "normally," that is to say violently, Valans themselves are faced with the question of whether Sharers are human, or can be killed like animals. In the end, Valans proclaim a kind of "peace with honor" and leave Shora, partly because they cannot kill off an entire world of unarmed women and children, partly because they fear that Sharers have unleashed an ultimate biological weapon, a kind of time-release virus that will kill them or their descendants without Sharers left to cure it, and partly because they simply don't know what to do with Sharer tactics.

A Door into Ocean portrays most essential institutions in its utopia, Shora, and contrasts them with the corresponding Valan structures. I shall outline a few. Politics and religion are intertwined. 4 To Sharers, all life is infused with the life force Shora; all Sharers share both Shora's autonomous power and responsibility to all else. Such an ideology produces shared decisions by consensus and shared political power. The Valan political structure is hierarchical, with different ethnic groups jockeying for power underneath rule by force, called "protection," by Torr. Marriage structures similarly reflect the two ideologies. On Shora, partners are equal; on Valedon, husbands "protect" wives, who achieve power by manipulation.

The economy of Shora is based on sharing resources and work for the common good. Valan capitalistic economy is based on the exploitation of commoners, with rather primitive living conditions, by the rich, with their high-tech luxury. On Valedon, education is "over" at the end of one's school years. Sharers conduct teaching/learning sessions continually. Both worlds have apprenticeship, but the system is rigidly controlled on Valedon. Science, especially advanced biology, are used on Shora for the improvement of life of all its people. Solar energy and plants produce their energy. Valedon leans to physics and engineering technology, available to the rich. Nuclear energy is controlled by a few to accumulate wealth and to subdue the populace.

Sharers, who reproduce by merging of ova, believe in the reincarnation of a limited number of souls. Pregnancy is freely chosen in accordance with consensus to "replace" a deceased person. Lifeshaping techniques avert the birth defects of which Valedon seems to have many, and reproduction there is strictly controlled by forced sterilization. If a Valan family cannot pay for a woman's sterilization she is sold into slavery (p. 21). This arrangement, for example, as many on Valedon, could be seen as a fictional exaggeration of U.S. conditions. Poor women here who may be able to pay for neither their abortion nor their prenatal care end up, in effect, "enslaved."

Valedon is a militaristic world. Physical violence, prison, terror, and killing are the Valan methods of dealing with a host of infractions. Shora is a peaceful world, although there is no lack of adventurous struggles to coexist with what are seen as necessary evils'of natural ecology. The only "punishment" is "unspeaking" a person, that is, to refuse speech or any other contact with an offender, though her physical needs are supplied. Individuals unspeak each other all the time, but total unspokenness is imposed only at last resort upon murderers and upon the "stonesick," in hopes of healing their addiction to Valan gems.

The most telling differences in the two cultures appears in the difference in the languages. Slonczewski represents the Valan language as standard English; Sharer language is "translated." The Sharer's word translated as "death-hastening," for instance, shows their conviction that death is a natural part of life; it is only a matter of when one dies. The corresponding Valan word -- our word -- "killing" deals differently with the concept of death, which we and the Valans fear. For Sharers, reaching a decision is to "share will;" on Valedon, an "order." Merwen has trouble understanding and using Valan vocabulary for coercion, and Spinel realizes that he knows no Sharer word for "law." There is only "shared will."

When Spinel tries to explain Valan religion and politics to Merwen, he gets this language lesson:

Spinel observes, "(The High Protector) rules everyone in Valedon."

"Then everyone rules him."

Spinel stopped and stared down at her. "What's that?"

"Each force has an equal and opposite force," Merwen said. "So who rules without being ruled?" (p. 36)

Spinel is just as nonplussed and lacking in comprehension as we might be at the concept akin to Newton's Third Law of Motion that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, not only for physical objects, but also for human actions, emotions, and institutions. Merwen treats Spinel's lack of understanding as a language gap, saying, "In Sharer speech, my words will explain themselves" (p. 36). Spinel does fine on nouns but loses his temper on verbs.

"What the devil is 'wordsharing'? Does the word for 'speak' mean 'listen' just as well? If I said, 'Listen to me!' you might talk, instead."

"What use is the one without the other? It took me a long time to see this distinction in Valan speech."

Spinel thought over the list of 'share-forms': learnsharing, worksharing, lovesharing. "Do you say 'hitsharing,' too? If I hit a rock with a chisel, does the rock hit me?"

"I would think so. Don't you feel it in your arm?"

He frowned and sought a better example; it was so obvious, it was impossible to explain. "I've got it: if Beryl (his pregnant sister) bears a child, does the child bear Beryl? That's ridiculous."

"A mother is born when her child comes."

"O(r) if I swim in the sea, does the sea swim in me?"

"Does it not?"

Helplessly he thought, She can't be that crazy. "Please, you do know the difference, don't you?"

"Of course. What does it matter?" (pp. 36-37)

Sharers also "share lies" (p. 109); the term implies an interesting participation by the recipient of the lie. Similarly, a deceiver is also deceived. Everything is a reflection of me; therefore what l do to another affects myself. This is the fundamental theme of the novel, from which the Sharer non-violence is derived. 5 Hastening death, even in response to "sharing pain," in this case the atrocities Valans perpetrate upon Sharers, means to be non-human.

For most Valans Sharers are not human, that is, not "like themselves," not like us, with their different physical appearance and their "extreme, almost pathological depletion of fear," as a Valan brainwasher put it (p. 241). Many Sharers are unsure about Valans, too. For Sharers, "human" means to be free of fear by control of pain, and because, unlike animals, they are self-reflective, they do not hurt or kill. Sharers control pain by "whitetrance," a slowing down of their bodily functions and consciousness and withdrawing to the point of death, which they may choose, an ultimate autonomy. Valans call a similar phenomenon an illegal "death block" in the face of brainwashing. Merwen evenually attains the understanding that Valans are human but behave like non-humans because they are like children, sick with "death hastening," who kill because they are afraid.

Slonczewski is skillful at drawing the reader into the struggle of each side to comprehend the other, by use of multiple and diverse linking figures, shifting points of view, and suggestive metaphors. The linking figures Nisi and Spinel have very different personalities and positions in Valan life. Both opt in the end to stay in the utopia, and both reach this decision after no little rebellion and failure in adopting Sharer thought. By showing two diverse but equally long and sometimes halting processes of acclimatization to Shora, Slonczewski gradually convinces us reluctant readers, also. Other Valan figures in the novel also take on some of the characteristics of linking figures. Realgar, and his mind-bending aide, must come to terms with the world they have been ordered to conquer, and react negatively and aggressively to utopia. A Valan scientist and a Valan physician react with interest, even admiration. The multiple assessments of Shora by these diverse Valans with diverse motives are also convincing. A Door into Ocean also shows many Sharers reacting to Valan culture variously. The multiplicity of Sharer reactions to Valedon is especially clear in conversations they have with one another and in meetings to build consensus on how to they have with one another and in meetings to build consensus on how to deal with Valans. Again, readers see various possibilities, and the diversity makes the consensus that is ultimately reached all the more compelling. 6

Slonczewski gives readers insight into the minds of the various linking figures by juxtaposing frequently shifting points of view. Point of view in the first half of the novel shifts back and forth every few pages or so 7 among the Sharers Merwen, of whose views the reader eventually might become convinced, and Lystra, who most often presents Sharer arguments in opposition to Merwen, and the two linking figures Spinel and Nisi. 8 Objections the reader might have are already anticipated and refuted from within the novel, a tried-and-true rhetorical device for argumentation. Almost precisely halfway through the novel, as Realgar comes to Shora to subdue it, his point of view is added to the array. The inclusion of the thoughts of this commander becoming increasingly angry at and frightened by his "enemy" (not to mention by Nisi) as he works to understand them are juxtaposed with the thoughts of Merwen trying to come to terms herself with the mind of the invaders. At the same time, we readers share the ambivalence of Nisi's and Spinel's points of view, too. Merwen's eventual comprehension of Realgar as a sick but human child is more persuasive in the context of multiple points of view than if only her thought process and perceptions had been presented.

In addition to multiple linking figures and rapidly shifting points of view, Slonczewski reinforces her points about the utopian and dystopian societies in A Door into Ocean by skillful use of metaphoric devices. She plays upon typical archetypes: Shora, the world peopled by all females, is a wet world, consisting entirely of oceans. The Sharers live on rafts of intertwined plants. In case the reader misses the association of Shora's physical properties with femaleness, Spinel early on describes seaweed as being "dark and mysterious a woman's hair (p. 20)." 9 The women on Shora are dark-colored and close to nature. Weaving and webs, typical feminist female metaphors, are also very frequently associated with Shora. While Shora is the wet sea, Valedon is hard rock. Although it has oceans, characters frequently describe it in terms of hardness and stone. The names of most Valan characters are terms for minerals or gems. Torr, the planet that rules Valedon, is a completely stone planet, with no oceans at all. The Patriarchal Envoy, turns out to be a robot -- hard, non-living metal. Although there are both men and women on Valedon, even in their army, power is in the hands of men. The Patriarch, of course, is also conceived of as male. 10

Shora, the ocean utopia with its all-female society of what the Valans call "catfish," is certainly not like our world. Can we consider Valedon, the stony dystopian planet presented in A Door into Ocean to be a culture like our own? That is, can a contrast between two quite imaginary worlds be utopian? I call to mind Sally Miller Gearhart's definition of a feminist utopia 11

A feminist utopian novel is one which a. contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time or space), b. offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions, c. sees men or male institutions as a major cause of present social ills, and d. presents women not only as at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions. (p. 296)
In A Door into Ocean Gearhart's last three conditions are fulfilled: Sharer women are in control of their reproduction, unlike women on Valedon. The novel certainly does associate the dystopia with male institutions and is comprehensive. The first part of Gearhart's definition of a feminist utopia is the sticking point: the contrast of the envisioned idealized society with the present one, for Slonczewski, then, the United States of the eighties, not a stony planet invented in a SF imagination. But even if the whole, Valedon, is not identical to our present culture, many various particulars are quite familiar, some exaggerated, some not. Valan language is represented as our language. In using a SF form Slonczewski is free to single out a comprehensive sampling of elements of our present culture that she wishes to critique by constructing a dystopia that has those elements clearly, even exaggeratedly represented, while constructing a clear and convincing eutopia.

We should also not overlook that SF is an enjoyable genre for didacticism. It is quite probable that Slonczewski will "reach" more readers with her SF worlds than had she contrasted Merwen to U.S. presidents and generals more directly. With A Door into Ocean Slonczewski joins other writers of feminist utopias, such as Lessing and Le Guin, in making use of SF in constructing contrasts of various fictional worlds that can remind us of present conditions and institutions without being the "real world."

Feminist literature and literature by women often appear in genres, like SF, that might be considered "sub-standard," or do not fit easily into separate categories of genre. In this case, feminists are using SF, which often emphasizes plot and characters, to present utopian visions, which traditionally place chief interest in political structures. Why are so many recent feminist utopias written in the SF form? We have seen how SF allows depictions of both an imaginary utopia and an imaginary "home base," focusing the critique of our present society, and that SF is good reading that lends itself to sugar-coating the didactic pill. Yet another reason that feminists might mesh utopias and SF is that a really feminist eutopia, like Shora, would be so alien to existing patriarchal structures that it would not be imaginable on this world. In addition, for feminists the "the personal is political." An imagined society may be best presented on the backs, as it were, of characters and events, even as institutional structures and individual experience are inseparable for us in the non-literary, "real" world.

1 Glenn R. Negley, in his introduction to Utopian Literature: A Bibliography with A Supplementary Listing of Works Influential in Utopian Thought, Lawrence, Kansas: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977, is uncomfortable with SF: "This bibliography has used, as nearly as possible, the definition of utopia advanced in The Quest for Utopia. Negley defines a utopia as "...first a fictional work (thus distinguished from political tracts and dissertations); it describes a particular state or community, even though that may be as limited as a small group or so extensive a to encompass the world or the universe (thus a statement of principles or procedural reforms is not a utopia); its theme is the political structure of that fictional state or community (thus a mere Robinsonade, adventure narrative, or science fantasy does not qualify as utopian)."(p- xii) Later in his introduction, Negley states that to include SF (though he does include some historical ones) would be too monumental a task, and "that the present bibliography may indeed neglect works of science fiction which should have been included." (p.xx)

2 New York: Avon Books, 1986.

3 For example, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), and several of Marion Zimmer Bradley's novels.

4 Not unlike in present-day United States.

5 Sharers attempt to teach Nisi, Spinel, the rest of the Valans, and us readers, too, what this "crazy" philosophy of life is.

6 Slonczewski's particular skill with linking figures from Valedon and from Shora is her presentation of multiple possibilities of interaction between the two worlds, each illuminating a part of the whole.

7 The longest passage with sustained point of view is ten and a half pages (Spinel, pp. 101-11), and that is an unusual occurrence.

8 Merwen's thought process is made all the more convincing because it is not the only opinion represented.

9 Even though Sharers are hairless, and regard Valan hair as uncouth, Spinel supplies the Valan association, which is close to our own.

10 Sharers are appalled at stone, not to mention robots and other mechanical objects. They see stone not only as non-life, the floor of the ocean to which the dead go, but also as "never-life." They sorrow over their "stonesick." One of the very few hopeful indications that the two cultures can be bridged is that Usha and the other Sharers begin to learn about the atomic structure of various stones and crystals, as compared to organic atoms from Spinel, a stonecutter's son, and from one of the Valan soldiers who had been a metallurgist. Again, it is Shora that begins to approach the other culture sensitively.

11 In her article, "Future Visions: Today's Politics: Feminist Utopias in Review," in Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers, ed. by Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch, New York: Schocken Books, 1984, pp. 296-309.

Last modified: June 29, 1998

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